Near the end of his life, General Lon Nol would call out for his eldest son from his sickbed in their southern California suburban home.
Lon Rith, then in his mid-twenties, would go to his father, sit by his bedside and listen.
“He would put his hand on my head and he would stroke my hair. He would tell me to take care of the family, to do what I had to do,” Lon Rith said Friday in an interview at the modest Phnom Penh headquarters of his recently-formed Khmer Republican Party.
“He would tell me: ‘If it’s good for all, stick to it. Before you do something, think in terms of what will happen. Look forward to the future, not just the moment.'”
Recalling these precious times spent with an ailing Lon Nol, 47-year-old Lon Rith cannot keep the tears back. They are tears of mourning for his father, says the former loan officer, but also for his country.
“I believe he would have wanted me to…not finish what he started, but follow through and make sure our people and our country get what they deserve, better than what they have now,” he said.
Lon Rith said he left Cambodia around 1968 or 1969, which would have made him roughly eight years old. His memories from that time are hazy, as are his memories of reuniting with his father in Hawaii once he was forced to flee Cambodia in 1975 prior to the toppling of his Khmer Republic.
“I knew the country fell to the Communists. And later on I knew that things happened, the atrocities. I knew my father started the resistance. He had tried to save Cambodia,” Lon Rith said.
Lon Rith has spent the majority of his life in the US, and most recently, lived and worked as a loan officer in Fulton, California prior to establishing the KRP in 2007. He returned to Cambodia for the first time last week in order to lead his party into the upcoming election.
His father Lon Nol, who seized power from then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk in a 1970 coup and ruled for the next five years, is charged with having officially ended Cambodia’s neutrality by siding with the US in their war against North Vietnam. Many credit Lon Nol with having severely weakened the country and hastened its descent into the hands of the Khmer Rouge.
In a statement dated April 18, retired King Sihanouk re-aired grievances that the “‘Khmer Republic’ of the Lonnolians…is one of the very great World Champions in matters of corruption, thievery, prevarication.”
“Incapable of the least military success against the Khmer Rouge, the Lon Nol – Lon Nol officers resorted to the US Air Force, and located, with general staff maps in hand, the rural villages to destroy, the rural populations to liquidate, to kill without the least pity or hesitation, with bombs and shell fire,” said the statement posted to the retired King’s official Web site Saturday.
But Lon Rith puts a positive spin on his inevitable connection to his father’s legacy.
“He and our people struggled for rights as people to stop tyranny, abuse…. Back then it was a struggle to defend the country. Now, it is a struggle to rebuild,” he said.
According to Lon Rith, Lon Nol did not waiver from the principles that guided the Khmer Republic, even in his final days, nor did he ever express regret.
“If he felt regret, you couldn’t tell. You could never tell if he felt desperation or happiness. He always maintained a very, very straightforward, determined [stance],” he said.
“But you knew deep inside he felt very bad for his people…. If he had any regret, it was that he couldn’t do more. There was no possible way for him to help his people at the time when they needed him,” he added.
“He had planned up to the last minute of the war. It didn’t go according to his way. Not because he planned wrong, but because certain people who didn’t understand enough, who saw a way out and made the country what it is…. At the time, when my father left, he gave instructions to [Khmer Republic Prime Minister] Long Boreth to do certain things which were never followed,” he said.
And if there were mistakes, Lon Rith does not feel he should have to answer for them.
“I don’t know how you could put me in the middle of that. It is my choice to defend my father or not, but I had nothing to do with that at the time,” he said. “In this 21st century, you have to talk about how to give people what they need [now] rather than talk about the past.”
To that end, he said that his party plans to focus on bringing basic necessities to the Cambodian people. Sanitation, electricity and schools will be high priorities, he said, as will reforming immigration policy-which may trigger memories in some of his father’s anti-Vietnamese rhetoric. However, Lon Rith said that his policies would not pertain to “any one country, but all countries.”
As for an economic strategy to raise the standard of living, Lon Rith said he’s still working on it.
“I have a five-year economic plan which I will reveal at a later date, when the time comes,” he said, adding that a specific date for the party’s first congress has not been set in stone.
“I am here to get a definite date and plan,” he said, claiming to have supporters in every province and municipality, totaling somewhere in the “millions.”
Koul Panha, director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, said Sunday that he thinks the KRP will find it difficult to win National Assembly seats come July.
“[Lon Rith] has some political capital from his father,” he said, “but I really don’t know what to decide about that.”
Koul Panha noted that most voters were born after 1975, and that among those old enough to remember life under Lon Nol opinion remains divided on the Khmer Republic.
Limited time before July elections will also hinder the KRP’s ability to connect with voters, he said.
Lon Rith knows he hasn’t much time, but he promised to stay the course no matter the challenge.
“We are running against time,” he said, but “even if I had only three months, I still would have done it. It’s in my nature: if I do something, I follow through. I think my father would have done the same thing.”
(Additional reporting by Douglas Gillison)